Falling Angels

By virtue of getting blown out repeatedly, the Pittsburgh Pirates have the worst run differential in baseball, at a staggering -89 runs. Following in second place are the woeful Houston Astros at -52, and the Baltimore Orioles check in third at -42 runs. None of this is surprising – these teams aren’t very good.

Know who has the fourth worst run differential in MLB right now? The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, at -37. Yes, the Angels have almost the same ratio of runs scored to runs allowed as the 7-19 Orioles, and yet, their past success and the name value of the guys on the roster continue to convince people that this is a good baseball team.

The evidence continues to mount that it’s just not true. Heading into the season, the projection systems were universally down on the Angels roster, projecting them for between 75 and 85 wins, a steep drop-off from their 97 wins of a year ago. The outfield defense looked really bad, the offense was relying on guys sustaining career best performances, and the success of the rotation involved big bets on a few guys with lingering health concerns.

To date, all of that has manifest itself on the field. The corner outfield rotation of Bobby Abreu, Juan Rivera, and Hideki Matsui have failed to make plays, costing their flyball pitching staff outs and allowing opponents to put runs on the board. In addition, Rivera hasn’t hit nearly as well as he did last year, and neither has Erick Aybar, another key breakout player from last year’s team who the Angels were relying on for offense.

But, while those problems are legitimate, the main concern for the Angels has to be their pitching staff.

Jered Weaver and Joel Pineiro are pitching strong up front (don’t let Pineiro’s ERA fool you), but beyond those two, the questions add up very quickly. Ervin Santana‘s fastball is exactly the same as it was last year, and he’s not showing any signs of returning to the front-line starter that he was in 2008. Scott Kazmir continues to try to adjust to life without a good fastball, but it’s still not going well. Joe Saunders is pitching like a #5 starter who needs a better defense to survive.

The Angels rotation has always been the strength of their teams, as they ran away with the AL West. Now, though, it’s no longer a strength, and the rest of the team isn’t making up for the lost ground.

The Angels are a good hitting team that will struggle to keep teams from putting runs on the board. In many ways, they’re pretty similar to the teams that the Rangers used to run out a few years ago, featuring good hitters who couldn’t field and a pitching staff that couldn’t overcome their defense. That formula never worked for Texas, and I don’t see much evidence that it will work for Anaheim either.

A month into the season, we have a bit more reason to believe the projection systems. This Angels team has a lot of problems.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


64 Responses to “Falling Angels”

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  1. Steve Balboni says:

    But they have veteran moxie, a potent chemistry headed by ebbuliient Torri Hunter, a crafty manager, cheap beers, the best fans in AL West, and the monkey. If your projection is just using numbers, you have a GIGO problem.

    (kidding)

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  2. MX says:

    Don’t worry Dave. When the Angles face the M’s at the end of this week, their pitching staff will all look like aces and get their confidence back.

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    • Joser says:

      It’s possible. Like the series with Texas, it’s two very resistible forces encountering two all-too-movable objects. In fact, that’s the entire AL West this year. Which is why it is, and will continue to be, such a close division — the battle for .500 favors no one.

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      • Wally says:

        Is that something like being stuck between air and a soft place?

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      • hoser says:

        I love that thought. I was thinking “between a cushion and a soft place” would also work. I think that would work better for below average teams. This division might be more like being between cardboard and a flimsy place.

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  3. dan woytek says:

    Do I have this wrong or haven’t the Angels always been a little weird in terms of their run differential and their actual record?
    I’m not trying to say they are good this year, but I believe they have a history of out winning their pythag.???

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  4. The Hit Dog says:

    Dave,

    I’m not saying he’ll return to ’08 levels, but I don’t think you’re giving Santana enough credit. He has a 4.1 xFIP (due to a 16.2% HR/FB) and a 2.8 K/BB. Not great, but not too bad, and considerably better when you consider his opponents: MIN, @NYY, @TOR, NYY, CLE, with an @BOS tonight. I think he’ll end up being a servicable 3rd starter once he gets a chance to see a little more SEA and OAK sprinkled in there.

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    • drzhang says:

      +1

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    • Dingo says:

      More positive signs — over his last three starts (vs. NYY, CLE, & TOR), he’s had a K/BB of 4.25 and an xFIP below 4.00. His fastball may not be any faster than last year, but he seems to be getting better results from his change-up.

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    • ed says:

      Well, in theory yes more games against the A’s would help, but in the three games already played it was 22-12 A’s.

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  5. Joser says:

    So what changed? Yes, the defense has failed their starters, their starters have failed the defense, and the offense has mostly failed to start. But on paper they weren’t all that much worse than past years’ teams, teams that have consistently outperformed the projections, sometimes by quite a bit.

    You mentioned the sputtering of the new guys and breakcout candidates, and obviously that’s a big problem though potentially a rectifiable one. Certainly it’s hard to pin it on the loss of the guys who are gone. Lackey went to the Red Sox, but we’re already agreed he was overrated — and he was hurt a lot during his stay with the Angels anyway — so that can’t be it. Vlad is gone, and that’s a big loss… except he was on the DL for big chunks of the past couple of years and that didn’t slow them down. Figgins might have been the olive in their offensive martini, but he wasn’t exactly the straw that stirred the drink, and anyway they’re playing like they can’t find the glass.

    So did their luck finally run out? Or is this merely one of their signature slow starts and they’re just about to pull it all together yet again? Last year at this time they were below .500 also, and they went on to run away with the division. They’re further back this year (especially if you go by games played rather than the calendar) and the competition may be consistently tougher, but is their record so far really the true measure of the team? I honestly don’t know: the Angels have seemed like Wiley Coyote running off the cliff face for some time now, and we’ve all been predicting their plunge for years without success; is it possible this is finally the year they looked down?

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    • The Hit Dog says:

      Figgins was worth 6.1 WAR last year. Whether he was or was not a “straw” or an “olive,” he was pretty important.

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  6. BJsWorld says:

    We can slice these numbers any way you want …

    Let’s look at things 3 games ago –

    – April 30th – Angels are 12-12 / Run differential is -23 runs / Almost the entire differential was due to 3 games against the A’s and Twins during the 1st week of the season (April 8th – 9 runs, April 9th – 6 runs, April 11th – 5 runs). No question – they got creamed for 3 games. After that, they have scored as many runs as they have given up.

    – So far, this year the Angels have played the Twins (4 games), Tigers (8), Yankees (6), Jays (3), A’s (3), and Indians (3). They are just starting their series with the Red Sox. According to ESPN’s SOS ranking the Angels have played the toughest schedule in baseball, followed closely by KC. No other team is even in the same ballpark as those two. In fact, their SOS is 30 points higher than any team finished last year (Angels 2010 – .546 … highest rank SOS last year – .516).

    – In 09 the Angels were similarly picked to flounder. They lost K-Rod and Teixeira and were leaning on a lot of kids (Aybar, Kendrick, Morales) to pick up the load. On this date last year they were one game under 500. None of those guys were hitting and the team’s rotation was in shambles. They go on to beat the odds and shatter the projection system with 97 wins.

    – Finally, the level of poor play is beyond just regression. Look at HOW BAD they are playing. It really is pathetic. Here are the variances between this year, last year, and their career OPS:

    Aybar: 648 / -128 / -54
    Abreu: 802 / -23 / -93
    Hunter: 888 / +15 / +85
    Matsui: 770 / -94 / -80
    Morales: 890 / -34 / +6
    Rivera: 722 / -88 / -77
    Kendrick: 693 / -85 / -69
    Napoli: 569 / -273 / -269

    So, you have one hitter going better than expected (Hunter). Two that are doing about what they did last year (Morales and Abreu). The rest are hitting at SIGNIFICANTLY lower levels than last year and their career norms. Frankly, the hitting could not be worse.

    Then you have the pitching. An absolute disaster. But again, you are looking at career worsts for some of these guys. You have one starter who is pitching to his capabilities. Everyone else is sucking it up. Their bullpen is a complete mess with 4 relievers posting ERA’s above 6.

    – In conclusion – the Angels have played the toughest schedule in baseball to date. The individual performance levels for both hitters and pitchers is drastically lower than last year and their career norms. And outside of a few blowouts, they have been a 500 ball club (despite what their run differential shows). All in all, there are plenty of things to be worried about if you are an Angels fan. But there are reasons to hope. An easier schedule, improved performance, and a consistent knack for beating the projection systems provide some light at the end of the tunnel.

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    • Everett says:

      There certainly are reasons to hope, but I’d think there are also a few reasons to be more concerned as compared to the past couple of years. The best news for Angels fans is that none of the rest of the West is particularly great either.

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  7. Rally says:

    I really, really hate to say it but Dave is not wrong here. They have played crappy baseball. I just hope this “I-told-you-so” turns out to be premature. The only bright spots on the team are Kendry Morales continuing to be a force, and Kevin Jepsen emerging as a dominant reliever (depsite a fine start, I’m not going to jump on the Rodney (9K, 7 BB) bandwagon.

    Speaking of “I told you so”, I also had the Mariners projected worse than most people, thanks to completely ignoring 50% of the game, putting runs on the scoreboard. Their offense has been worse than even I thought.

    The Rangers will probably run away with it – pretty good defense in their own right, some power pitching, and guys who can swing the bat. The only complete team in the division.

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  8. Frank in LA says:

    There is much better depth to your analysis than the lead article. Well done.

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  9. Run /difference/, and not run “differential”. A differential is an instantaneous difference in a function describing rate of change of another function.

    Otherwise, a fine article.

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    • Joser says:

      When sports writers begin using the word “momentum” in a way that respects its definition in Newtonian physics I’ll start to worry about them using “differential” as if they’re applying Newtonian (and Leibnizian) calculus. Meanwhile, I’ve accepted that some terms mean different things in different contexts, as annoying as that may be (and despite the fact that math overlaps them all). By the way, flies are animals.

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    • Adam F says:

      No, a differential is “a device, usually but not necessarily employing gears, capable of transmitting torque and rotation through three shafts” (wikipedia)

      There are multiple definitions of words in the English language. Run differential is the correct usage in this article.

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  10. sausagemcbiscuit says:

    that was a quick write-up. Only a month into the season to. The offense will be fine, but the concerns with Saunders/Ervin/Kaz are legit. If those 3 continue to struggle, I wouldn’t put it out of the equation to see the Halos trade for a starter at the deadline. I still see them winning the West in the end, however.

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    • Rally says:

      I’m not too worried about Santana. A little more abut Kazmir, but they are throwing strikes and getting swings and misses. They keep that up and they’ll be decent. I can’t say the same about Saunders though. Right now he’s got nothing going for him. He’d probably make a decent reliever if the Angels try Bell or O’Sullivan in the rotation.

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  11. Xeifrank says:

    Current Standings: Angels > Mariners

    Mariners were projected to do as well and in a few cases better than the Angels this year. I can’t wait to read the fair and balanced article explaining why the Mariners are failing.

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    • marc w says:

      Um, the Mariners aren’t leading the division because they can’t hit.

      They’re still in the race because they’ve got good pitching and very good defense.

      There’s no mystery here; it’s not like it’s a secret.

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    • Jack says:

      The Angels have gotten lucky this month. The Mariners have been unlucky and were missing Cliff Lee for the whole month. Just give it a little more time and you’ll see the Angels sputter. Also the Mariners and the Angels are both 2.5 games back of Texas. I don’t see how you can take away Angels>Mariners from that.

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      • Xeifrank says:

        Jack, do the math on the win percentages of both teams. The Angels are ahead of the Mariners in the standings by a few percentage points. To tell you the truth, I could care less why it is that the Mariners have not been very good. I just find it amusing that Mr Mariner implies that the Angels are not a good team after something like 25 games and a tough schedule have been played. While the Mariners on the otherhand are below the Angels in the standings and were projected by many people/systems to have a more successful 2010 campaign than the Angels. I hope Mr Mariner also has an article in the pipeline that goes into detail as to why the 2010 World Champion Mariners are not a good team.

        In other words, I take anything that Mr Mariner says about the Angels with a grain of salt, based on his proven strong biases.
        vr, Xeifrank

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      • Dingo says:

        The point of this article is to explain why the Angels should not be thought of as the hands-down division favorites, just because they’ve been good in the past. Dave has said in the past that the AL West is basically a toss-up, and this article doesn’t do anything to change that — it’s not that the Angels are the worst team in the division. They’re just not the best either. If you want to turn this into some Mariners vs. Angels debate, then that’s your issue.

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      • BIP says:

        If you read USSM you’d know Dave has been as critical of the Mariners this first month as anyone. Almost every article has been a discussion of the teams’ weaknesses and failings. So, congrats on your utterly unfounded bias accusations.

        Also, you can’t play the “run differential is pretty useless at this stage” while using the current standings (which would be, by definition, even more useless) as a launching pad for your childish crap.

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      • Xeifrank says:

        Yes, the standings and the pythag are both small sample sizes. But the difference is that only the standings matter. Those wins and losses have been deposited in the bank. I’m sure Mr Mariner has been critical of the Mariners at USSM, but Fangraphs is the more mainstream and “fan diverse” site.

        The Mariners were projected to do just as well as the Angels (or better) by most of the sites that people here read. Why is it such a big deal that the Angels are three games under .500, when a team that was projected by most pundits to do better than them is actually below them in the actual standings.

        Then why use pythag to back up an argument without acknowledging the fact that it is wayyyyyy too early for pythag to have anything close to a meaningful result. Pythag is fairly meaningless in a 162 game sample due to its margin of error. Just based on dumb luck you are likely to have a team miss its pythag number by 10-12 wins. After 25 games? Come on. It is kind of like the time Mr Mariner was analyzing/projecting how many wins a team would get by subtracting off and adding pieces based on the previous years win total. Also not a good idea.

        Hey! Just my opinion on the article. I didn’t call anyone an obscene name like patsfan. Love reading the articles and will continue to critique where necessary.
        vr, Xeifrank

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      • BIP says:

        1) Yes, this is a mainstream site. That’s why there isn’t a deluge of Mariner articles. Would you prefer Dave copy/paste his USSM stuff?

        2) Again, you don’t get to dismiss evidence provided by a stat and then use a worse one in it’s place. Yes, the standings matter… at the end of the season. If you want a barometer of performance to-date, run differential or WAR is much more useful.

        Also, you say “Just based on dumb luck you are likely to have a team miss its pythag number by 10-12 wins.” Well, I looked at the last two seasons. Guess how many teams missed their pythag record by 10 or more wins? Two. So hooray for making shit up. Not the best way to advance your arguments, though.

        “It is kind of like the time Mr Mariner was analyzing/projecting how many wins a team would get by subtracting off and adding pieces based on the previous years win total.”

        That’s funny because all I’ve ever read from him (and Matthew) is that that’s a poor method of making a projection. But hey, keep on making shit up.

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      • Xeifrank says:

        BIP, I think you actually made my argument for me on the missing the pythag by 10+- wins thing. How much the 30 teams miss their pythag record by is distributed along a bell curve for the most part (close enough to use the principles of a bell curve). The mean is going to be zero. My 10-12 number was an estimate, because I’ve seen the standard deviation given, but I just don’t remember the exact numbers, but I am betting that a SD of 5 is pretty close. So following the mathematical principles of a normal distribution you are going to have outliers – a few of which will be rather significant. Given that kind of deviation/noise, it is very difficult to come to any sound conclusions based off of pythag. The Angels could end up with a 0 run differential at the end of the season, and the pythag would tell us that they should be an 81 win team. This is nice, but if you don’t also take into context that they could be an actual 91 team win (empirically) and you can’t necessarily call it luck, because you would expect atleast one and possibly two teams to have that kind of spread just based off of randomness. I may not have explained my point too clearly, but I think it is a fairly easy concept to grasp. :)
        vr, Xeifrank

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      • BIP says:

        Yeah, I thought about it some more, and I do agree with you on the pythag bit. I did some Stats tutoring in college, even. For some reason I thought you were saying *any* team was likely to miss it’s pythag record by 10-12 games. My bad.

        I still disagree with you on the other stuff though!

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    • patsfan says:

      The Mariners have a -4 run differential. The Angels are -37. No need to be a dick.

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  12. Wally says:

    I’m not sure why we should just accept that the Angels have a knack for outperforming their pythag and that this should continue. One major reason teams outperform their pythag is having a good bullpen and manager. They no longer have that great bullpen they used to and currently lack any quality guy that projects better than a 4.00 FIP. Plus, we have 30 teams in the league, and RD is not supposed to be perfect, I don’t want to do the math right now, but we should have a decent chance of seeing a team on the outside edge of their predicted W/L ratio from RD for several years in a row. Particularly if some of those years were due to legitimate reasons, such as the bullpen stated above.

    Plus, then this doesn’t mean pythag doesn’t matter, it just tacks on a couple of wins from their pythag. Even if they outperform their pythag, who really cares if they can’t stay above .500?

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    • Xeifrank says:

      Pythags have a pretty large standard deviation if my memory serves me right, and it would be even larger based on the small sample size of less than 30 games. Probably should’ve been pointed out.
      vr, Xeifrank

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      • Dingo says:

        What should have been pointed out? That your straw man argument (not made anywhere in the article) is not true?

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      • Xeifrank says:

        Author says the Angels are at -37 run differential, then compared them to the Orioles and said they are only a good team based on reputation – and states the evidence is mounting that the Angels are indeed not a good team. He uses pythag run differential as the main argument in his introduction. The part of an essay/article where you lay out your hypothesis. He really should’ve just skipped the pythag stuff.
        vr, Xeifrank

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      • He never mentions Pythag anything. Run differential does exist without Pythag, you know. Run differential is as simple as taking runs scored and subtracting runs allowed. That’s it. Just because the Pythag Expectation formula uses run differential doesn’t mean run differential is always associated with Pythag.

        God…

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      • Xeifrank says:

        Dear IdiotFan,
        Run differential implies pythag.
        vr, Xeifrank

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      • vivaelpujols says:

        The only practical usage of run differential is Pythag.

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      • Dingo says:

        So you’re not arguing against a straw man argument — you’re just arguing against implications that only exist in your brain. If you want to choose to infer pythag standings from run differential, go ahead. But it’s absurd to think that’s what the author was getting at when he never actually said anything about pythag standings. It seems pretty simple to me that if you want to see how a team is performing so far, one thing you can look at is whether they’re scoring more runs than their opponents.

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      • Rally says:

        Criticism of your team can be useful coming from allies. We tend to get a bit defensive when it comes from the enemy.

        To be honest though, if the Angels keep playing this bad it doesn’t really matter if Seattle is crappier or not. We’re actually better off if they aren’t – better draft pick next year.

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      • vivaelpujols says:

        Dingo – the only use of run differential is Pythag. That is the only use of run differential is how it translates to wins and losses. If run differential wasn’t related to wins and losses, there would be no reason to bring it up. Dave obviously brought up the -37 differential to imply that the Angels were getting lucky in close games or whatever. He is implying that the Angels actual record should be worse given their run differential – that’s Pythag.

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      • Kevin S. says:

        Actually, that’s not entirely true. Pythag isn’t predictive after a twenty-five game sample, but run differential still tells a better story of how a team has played to date than record does, so it’s absolutely fair to use RD as a commentary on how well the Angels have played.

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      • Xeifrank says:

        Kevin, the author calls the run differential evidence that the Angels are not a good team. He does so in his hypothesis. So this is more than just a commentary on how well the team has played over the first month of the season. It is being used as the “main” argument as to why the Angels are not a good team. Where we know that after 25 games pythag/run differential should be weighted by 0.1 and pre-season projection should be weighted the other 0.9.

        I have no problem with the author using pythag (run differential) as part of his argument as long as he uses it correctly and states that it has very little weight and is very unreliable due to a small sample size of games.

        It was a disappointingly poorly constructed article. It happens every once in a while, even from the best authors. What makes this one stand out is that the author is Mr Mariner and Mariner bloggers tend to be infatuated with the Angels and their “lucky” pythag record the past couple of years.

        I see LL has a somewhat similar article up today but is using Baseruns instead of run differential. Still some of the same SSS issues.
        vr, Xeifrank

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      • Kevin S. says:

        Xeifrank, I can only conclude that you saw him mention run diff and jumped down to comment, because you’ve completely misrepresented how it was used in this piece. He used it as a lead in, but then brought the preseason projections up in the meat of his argument. His closing paragraph:

        A month into the season, we have a bit more reason to believe the projection systems. This Angels team has a lot of problems.

        A bit more. Like, say, a tenth of the picture?

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      • Xeifrank says:

        Kevin, I’m fine with saying that the worst thing about this article is heavy exaggeration. I think what also rubs people the wrong way is that the author is a big Mariner fan as we know and has also made lite of the Angels and their “lucky” pythag record over the recent past. He thinks that the Angels are thought to be a good team based on name recognition, past performance and hype. This is a valid opinion to have. The rubbing comes in the fact that the Mariners are also a very hyped up team, due to the card shuffling they did with their team during the offseason. The facts are that the Mariners are doing just as poorly as the Angels are. They were projected to do as well and in many cases better than the Angels based on their true talent level. Let’s be fair and balanced and put out an article in the mainstream that discusses some of these same things about the Mariners. Maybe he prefers not to duplicate his content at USSM or he has been asked not to write about the Mariners. That’s fine. It’s just that it will rub many people the wrong way. That and his exaggeration on the pythag after 25 games are my only gripes. I think the author in general is very good. But there is nothing wrong with being critical in a mature way.
        Thanks.
        vr, Xeifrank

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  13. Hank says:

    Corner outfield rotation including Matsui?
    Last night was what Matsui’s 3rd game in the OF?

    Do the Yankees have a 1B rotation with Nick Johnson and Tex?

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  14. TheQuestforMerlin says:

    “their past success and the name value of the guys on the roster continue to convince people that this is a good baseball team.”

    There are 3 things (I can think of at the moment) that can bolster any argument for why a player is good or not:

    1. Current performance
    2. Past success (weighted towards the previous season)
    3. “Name value” or “true talent level”

    If certain Angel players have a solid foundation in two of these (point 1 and 2), perhaps it may not be wise to proclaim the Angels, after one month of the season, as a bad baseball team.

    Especially when a very similar – *cough* Milton Bradley and his ‘name recognition’ blinding certain fans to his poor start to this season and disastrous last season as indicating declining contact skills *cough* – and somewhat damaging argument can be made for the sinking Mariners… ;-)

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    • TheQuestforMerlin says:

      Oh I meant (point 2 and 3 in the brackets… obviously current performance for some Angel players has not been good)…

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  15. vivaelpujols says:

    How predictive do you think Pythag is after 25 games?

    http://vegaswatch.net/2008/04/finding-happy-medium.html

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  16. BJsWorld says:

    I guess at the end of the day the only real issue I have with this article is sample size. It is preached again and again that it is way too early to evaluate players. Why is it OK to write off an entire team?

    Last year on this date you had the following:

    – Blue Jays crushing it at 18-10. +34 run differential.
    – Yankees were sucking it at 13-12. Posted a -13 run differential.
    – KC was cruising in the AL Central while posting +42 more runs than the Twins.
    – The Dodgers were sitting at 19-8 in first place. The Rockies were dead last at 10-14.

    It is just way too early to make any evaluations yet. The Angels should be concerned (as I mentioned above). They are not playing good baseball – in any aspect (pitching, hitting, defense, baserunning). I’ll even go so far as to suggest that Scoscia has made some really poor management decisions. It’s been just ugly. However, there is plenty of time to right the ship. The team is solid at the core and ownership has deep pockets and a desire to win. Writing off the Angels on May 4th would just be plain foolish.

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  17. wobatus says:

    Santana pitched a gem last night, and his K/bb rates suggest he’s pitching well. Even before last night his xfip as right around 4.

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  18. Brett W. says:

    Hey Dave, off-topic, but just curious if you’re ready to ‘mea culpa’ on the M’s in your org. rankings yet. It’s pretty obvious now that the M’s are exactly who most of us thought they were.

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  19. DJ Cahill says:

    I question whether the Angels are still a good hitting team. I wonder if last year’s performance was inflated by an unsustainable team BABIP, much like the 2008 Rangers was.

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